I, quite embarrassingly, spent a good portion of my winter break binge-watching the original Gossip Girl. Some tens of hours into watching the obscenely extravagant lives of a bunch of trust-fund teens, I noticed something mildly ironic about the show’s characters. In a world where they could have anything they wanted, they were all obsessed with obtaining the one thing they couldn’t easily have: a spot at Yale. An entire season of Gossip Girl was dedicated to this obsession, with the snobby teens fighting, bribing, and manipulating whoever they could to try to secure their place at our school. In those characters’ eyes, walking the hallowed halls of an elite university was everything. As I began to think more about their strange obsession, however, it began to seem startlingly ordinary.
In America, getting an “elite” education is about status. If you attend a top-tier university like Yale, you are immediately initiated into a selective social class, one in which people go on to amass enormous amounts of wealth and become world leaders. You are perceived by American society as being extraordinarily intelligent and uniquely talented, and are thus given political and economic privileges that most others can only dream of. But those privileges, and that perception, are ultimately damaging to our society.
The allure of the Ivy League and similar caliber institutions pervade the collective American consciousness. Pop culture is rife with Ivy League references. Harvard and Yale, in particular, are frequently mentioned in movies and tv shows, and are nearly always considered places where incredible intelligence, talent, wealth, and power are concentrated. Disney –– the media entertainment giant which had nearly 40 percent of the box office market share pre-pandemic –– consistently sends their TV show’s main characters to elite colleges, signaling to millions of young viewers that the only colleges worth going to are the ones with big names and even bigger endowments. Washington Post Contributor Daniel de Vise suggests that these fictional characters are linked to universities because “college can be central to our sense of social identity, as essential as home town, career or income bracket.” Thus, by connecting the identities of America’s famous fictional protagonists to elite schools, pop culture reinforces the idea that only the best and brightest emerge from elite college campuses.
Going to an elite college has thus become a heavily coveted status symbol. The college application process has ballooned into a high-stakes event where students and parents do just about anything to get through the doors of elite colleges. College rankings –– which are notoriously bad at determining the actual quality of a school and which students it would best serve –– are closely watched by high school students and parents alike, and the schools in the top 25 of those rankings often see significant upticks in application numbers. As the acceptance rates of the top colleges and universities steadily decline, wealthy parents and their children turn to college admissions counselors to receive coaching throughout the entire application process –– from testing to essay writing to interviewing. And when that doesn’t work, some resort to illegal activity to secure spots at prestigious colleges.
The intense anxiety surrounding this process has led to the creation of popular online communities, where students and parents obsess over the intricacies of the admissions process and try to anticipate the results of their applications before they are released. It has also left students feeling as if they must do everything they can to sell themselves to universities, even if that means sharing significant personal trauma. This pressure of the elite college admissions process has also created a breeding ground for racist zero-sum arguments about who deserves to have access to these schools.
Even more problematic about our culture’s relationship with elite colleges and universities is its effect on our economic and political institutions. To this day, graduates of top colleges, and of Ivy League schools in particular, are overrepresented in corporate and political spaces. Prior to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, all nine Supreme Court justices attended either Harvard or Yale (or both). Prior to Joe Biden’s election, our last five American presidents had a degree from an Ivy League school. Elite college grads also currently occupy a disproportionate number of positions in Congress. And in 2019, Washington Post contributor Jerome Kabel found, “Almost a third of officers and directors in the corporate elite earned undergraduate degrees from elite schools.”
If college admissions were truly fair, this disproportionate representation in the halls of power would not be an issue, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. The students that graduate from our nation’s top schools aren’t always the best and brightest. Each year, the top schools reject tens of thousands of highly qualified applicants, and wealthy people generally receive an advantage at every turn of the college application process. The students that are admitted to elite schools still tend to be white as well. The proportion of Black and Brown students at top colleges has largely stagnated, and the students of color who are admitted to these schools tend to be economically privileged. The people who come out of these colleges, the same people who exert immense influence over our politics and economics, are still mostly rich white people. Our education system has, in effect, reinforced America’s existing aristocracy.
To fix this, we must reimagine our education system. UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp argues for an expansion of elite colleges, calling on top schools to increase their enrollment numbers, and, in doing so, offer the privilege of elite education to more students. A promising idea to be sure, but it still holds elite colleges on a pedestal, casting them as the saviors of the American education system. Instead, what if we made an effort to support colleges not considered elite? What if we expanded the resources we give to those schools so that they could compete with top colleges’ brands? What if all high schools encouraged their students to find the best fit for them, rather than focusing on the name of the universities they decide to apply to? And what if we all collectively decided to dismiss the notion that an education from an elite school makes you more intelligent and talented than others?
These are hard goals to accomplish, but working toward them will ensure that we avoid ending up in a Gossip Girl-like society, one where wealth and power continue to be concentrated in the hands of the few and are further reinforced by our shallow conceptions of status.